Dying Young

A death at Adobe Mountain raises questions about conditions in youth prisons

Both inside and outside of ADJC, experts express concern that such conditions could lead to a kid's deterioration -- and maybe even suicide.

Russell Van Vleet, a Utah-based juvenile corrections consultant with 30 years in the business, says a suicide can occur anyplace, anytime.

An unidentified boy in lockdown at Adobe Mountain.
Dan Huff
An unidentified boy in lockdown at Adobe Mountain.


More stories in the Slammed special report.

"To be fair, people do die in facilities that are well operated, too," he says. "But when you know that conditions aren't the way they're supposed to be . . . your responsibility certainly heightens. Your liability should, too."

Van Vleet says that the "sensory deprivation" that results from several days in a lockdown situation is dangerous. He's familiar with such conditions. Van Vleet was one of the monitors of the 1993 federal court order imposed on ADJC facilities to address conditions such as those the youth rights advocate is complaining about now.

"That's back where we were with the original . . . problems," Van Vleet says.

Last year, New Times reported that similar situations had arisen in the past four years, after the court order was lifted ("Slammed," Amy Silverman, July 5, 2001). The series of articles detailed evidence of physical, sexual and verbal abuse of juvenile detainees by staff, inadequate mental health and educational services, and instances in which kids were kept in detention far longer than their recommended time of stay.

At the time, ADJC staff lamented privately that it was going to take a death in one of their facilities to get the attention of state and federal officials who are in a position to take action and improve conditions.

"I'm just surprised that it's taken us this long to have a fatality," says one high-level supervisor, who has been with the agency for more than three years and who has seen the decline in quality of care since the federal court order expired.

Without an outside investigation, it will be difficult to know for certain what led to Christopher Camacho's death, Van Vleet says.

He's not hopeful. Last July, more than 30 community leaders, includingVan Vleet, wrote to Governor Jane Dee Hull, requesting that she create a task force to look into ADJC.

The community leaders' letter to Hull asked for a review of "conditions of confinement, length of stay determination and aftercare services throughout ADJC." It requested that the majority of task force members come from outside ADJC.

More than nine months later, Van Vleet has heard nothing from Hull. Neither has Jan Christian, the former executive director of the Governor's Select Commission and Task Force on Juvenile Corrections, who headed the letter-writing group.

"I am saddened to hear that we have lost another youth," Christian says. "I wonder if his death might have been prevented if Governor Hull had created an independent group to investigate your findings, as so many of us asked her to do last summer. I hope she will reconsider our request in light of this."

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